“Showgirls, but in a convent.” That’s how Benedetta has been sold, which really only scratches the surface of this supremely sexy, silly, strangely entertaining film from ever-indelicate satirist Paul Verhoeven. Adapted from Judith C. Brown’s book, Immodest Acts: The Life Of A Lesbian Nun In Renaissance Italy, it has the weight of history behind it, as if to deflect against accusations of implausibility. Yes, there really were horny, mystic nuns in a 17th-century abbey, in what is supposedly the earliest written record of a lesbian relationship in the modern Western world.
So you might reasonably think it follows the ‘forbidden historical romance’ blueprint. Certainly, the film explores female desire in a world that denies it, helped by humane and considered performances from Virginie Efira as the title character and newcomer Daphne Patakia as her lover, with the always-dependable Charlotte Rampling eyeing them suspiciously as the sceptical, scowling Abbess.
But Verhoeven is too interesting — and too irreverent — a filmmaker to simply go down one well-trodden path. He seems fascinated by how this story intersects with sexual expression and freedom, power dynamics and gender, and the clashing of reason and faith.
True disciples will appreciate the outlandish craft and courage of Verhoeven’s best film in years.
It is a reckoning of religion as much as anything, and ever the provocateur, Verhoeven seems to delight in the sacrilegious. This is a film in which (within the first five minutes) the blessed Virgin Mary takes the form of a small bird who poos into someone’s eye; Jesus Christ himself appears as a horseback-riding, sword-wielding hunk; and a wooden idol of the Virgin is fashioned into a makeshift dildo.
Much of this is quite straightforwardly funny, and it’s hard to imagine some of the dialogue — co-written by Verhoeven and David Birke — hasn’t been played for laughs. (As one church elder cries, “Lust? Between women? Impossible!”) Earnest and often emotional performances from the cast keep things the right side of out-and-out comedy, but it is a satire in the most forthright terms.
While Verhoeven’s last film, the Paris-set, Isabelle Huppert-starring Elle, was understated and arthouse-y, Benedetta finds the director closer to his Basic Instinct-era erotica comfort zone. The filmmaking here is blunt, almost tacky. Anne Dudley’s score is enjoyably sweeping, though it verges on cheesy, while a CGI sky in the final act, portending divine judgement, is laughably cheap. It’s an entirely European production — a Dutch director, working in the French language on a film set in Italy — but to its marrow, this is B-movie exploitation Hollywood.
Inevitably, that means not every viewer will be singing from the same hymn sheet. Some are bound to be offended; others will just find it juvenile or absurd. But true disciples will appreciate the outlandish craft and courage of Verhoeven’s best film in years: a feminist allegory about a woman establishing power in a patriarchal system — through faith, love and dildos.